Essay by Warren Chalk. First published in Archigram 6, within 35mm contact sheet pages.

...........apart from all that, the first half of the 1940s saw a great inventive leap made out of necessity for survival, advancing technology and mass production techniques and demonstrating man’s ingenuity, courage, effort and investment under the stress and pressure of war. Out of this period came too a strange social idealism. The idealism was to fade but the technology, the laminated timber or geodesic framework of an aircraft, the welded tubular construction of a bridge, the airstructure of a barrage balloon, and much more, filtered through to colour our attitudes and disciplines today.


During the final stages of World War II several prefabricated house types emerged as part of the ‘clip-on’ / ‘plug-in’ heritage. They were given the official blessing of Winston Churchill, and produced in quantity for the temporary housing programme.


Of all the systems the ARCON MARK V. (45,000) and the AIROH (54,000) are probably the most significant – it’s all there, the ‘heart unit’, ‘package kitchen’ and other ‘plug-in’ goodies that appear so with-it 25 years later. However, soon the market was flooded with prefabricated systems, destroying the very basis of mass production, and this, together with public prejudice and the social stigma attached to the word ‘Prefab’ proved fatal.


Compared with today, in the 1940s pop-culture remained obscure, but it was there to be had in the shape of Jane Russell, and the original ‘pin-up’ girl, Betty Grable. ‘Crooners’ were still ‘in’ and Sinatra was King. Pop music was sticky – ‘They Can’t Black Out the Moon’ by Ambrose, but Be-bop addicts tuned into A.F.N. [the American Forces Network] to hear snatches of Bird or Tadd Dameron in between Miller and Kenton.


On the fine art scene there was little true pop. The romantic literary Englishness of John Piper and Edward Bawden held sway, and there was Trog. The Ad-man was still the art man, and commercial art smacked of the 1930s, all collage and Constructivist typography. For pop reading there was the Tropics by Henry Miller, the original beat, and of course Lilliput and Picture Post.


Meanwhile the straight-up-and-down architectural situation had seen an end to the ‘white boxes’ of the 1930s and the Modern Movement had become acceptable to all but the most reactionary. The standard of architecture was poor and little of it was worth recording here; only Lubetkin struggled manfully on, until the Peterlee New Town fiasco proved too much. The social idealist camp looked towards Sweden and the copper clad mono-pitch was born, and a Mies type factory (Frankel) went up quietly in Wales.


Possibly only the Hertfordshire achievement shaped up to the promise of the 1940s; the welter of proposals for the bomb-battered towns and cities certainly did not.

 

During the war fashion design played a double game: on the one hand the squared shoulders, military-looking hats, shoulder strap handbags and clumpy shoes got close to the Services uniforms, while the other provided the absolute antithesis, with silly little hats, silk stockings and ‘frocks’. In the austerity peace that followed the most shattering events were the ‘wasp-waist’ and the ‘New Look’ skirts dropping their hemlines to the ankles. Paradoxically, the atom bomb inspired another fashion revolution in the form of the ‘Bikini’. War surplus found its way onto the consumer market and everything, from jeeps to duffle coats, has influenced us since.


During the allied invasion of Europe at the end of the War, the Americans captured over 200 V2s from the Germans and shipped them back to the States. Later, the warheads were removed and replaced with electronic equipment and fired off into space, heralding the beginning of the space programme. Events such as this – too many to enumerate here – occurring in the 1940s, have shaped the patterns and attitudes that we subscribe to today. The contributions made in so many disparate disciplines should be important to us in our search for a way out from the current stagnation and misdirection.

 

Also included here are the more satisfactory contributions to the Festival of Britain which, though not strictly 1940s, acted as a watershed for opinions about design and ways of life in the same way as the MARS group exhibition in 1937.

 

The 1951 exhibition, an expensive piece of pseudo-social scientific naval gazing designed to boost the wilting popularity of the Labour government, sold ‘Contemporary’ architecture to the public and we have suffered and tried to escape its devastating influence ever since.

 

This then is a highly personal view of the 1940s, trying to evoke some of the look and feel of the period which, if not architecturally great, is certainly worth recording.


Warren Chalk, October 1965

 

Acknowledgments

To Geoff Reeve for the cover design

To Ron Herron and Dennis Crompton for help and advice